It’s 2015, and Saturday Night Live (SNL) is entering middle age with its fortieth season. Forty years of sketch comedy, live parody, nationwide hilarity, political lampoons and late-night shenanigans. Forty years of pushing the boundaries of American television. Forty years of introducing America to some of its most well-loved comedians: Will Ferrell, Amy Poehler, Tina Fey, Adam Sandler and Jimmy Fallon, among others. Forty years — an unprecedented run for a television series. To celebrate this monumental anniversary, we’ve written up a brief history of the now-classic show.
Saturday Night Live premiered on NBC on October 11, 1975 as NBC’s Saturday Night. According to Tom Shales’ and James Miller’s book Live from New York, the show was originally created simply to fill the time slot once taken up by reruns of Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show. NBC executives could not have predicted the success that would greet the satirical series. As noted in Live from New York, SNL “sparked a renaissance in topical, satirical and political humor both on television and off it … hugely expanded the parameters of what was ‘acceptable’ material on the air [and] made a nation laugh.” The original format of the show continues to this day: a combination of celebrity hosts, musical acts and young comedy talent, each opening sketch ending with the bold declaration, “Live from New York, it’s Saturday Night!” The original cast included Dan Aykroyd, John Belushi, Chevy Chase, Jane Curtin, Garrett Morris, Laraine Newman and Gilda Radner, a group that called themselves the “Not Ready for Primetime Players” and one that garnered great ratings.
In 1980, NBC replaced SNL creator and executive producer Lorne Michaels with Jean Doumanian, and almost every existing cast member and writer quit in protest. After five years of off-the-charts popularity, the show suffered a severe drop in quality resulting in a painful season filled with inexperienced writers and performers. But despite this moment of crisis, the show survived. And Michaels made a return to the show in 1985; he just couldn’t stay away. Recurring cast members during this decade included Eddie Murphy, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Billy Crystal, Robert Downey Jr. and Mike Myers.
The 1990 season comprised the largest cast: a total of 18 performers that included up-and-comers Adam Sandler, David Spade and Chris Rock. The increase in numbers inevitably led to factions within the group, a division between veteran performers like Dana Carvey and the newbies. In 1992, Michaels produced the wildly successful movie Wayne’s World — costarring Myers and Carvey — a spin off an SNL sketch series about two goofs who ran their own public-access cable show. Mid-decade, the cast went through another big shift when many members left. But SNL rebounded as it always seems to do, with no less than the likes of Will Ferrell, Jimmy Fallon, Tracy Morgan, Horatio Sanz and Tina Fey. Political satire was as popular as ever, and Ferrell’s impression of George W. Bush became iconic. The show experienced ups and downs throughout the ‘90s, with critics intermittently and mockingly declaring “Saturday Night Dead,” but SNL always bounced back.
The start of the new millennium ushered in new “Weekend Update” anchors Jimmy Fallon and Tina Fey. The two made the traditional weekly newscast into what Live From New York aptly describes as “just a sexy pair of smart alecks sitting around and making fun of the world.” In September 2001, Amy Poehler and Seth Meyers joined the cast at a difficult time for comedy. The season opened a mere two weeks after the attacks on the World Trade Center, with the cast receiving permission from New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani to “be funny.” Great talent like Bill Hader, Andy Samberg and Kristen Wiig came on board during the 2000’s and left the show years later with acclaim.
The 2013-14 season saw a huge cast overhaul: according to a timeline created by Entertainment Weekly, six new featured players joined, and Seth Meyers left to take over NBC’s Late Night. Many of this season’s performers are young and fresh, and they keep SNL alive with the show’s only constant: change.